Opinion

Time for Obama to rethink Washington's mild-mannered stance toward China

Before 9/11, the Bush administration was beginning to take a stronger stance against China on Taiwan. But after 9/11, Washington resumed a conciliatory relationship that has colored – for the worse – US-China relations.

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One critical point overlooked in the recent 9/11 commentary is the shift in the US-China relationship that was emerging in 2001 until it was aborted by the September 11 terrorist attacks.

The Bush administration was in the process of asserting a stronger deterrent stance against potential Chinese aggression directed at democratic Taiwan. But after 9/11, Washington hurried to count China among its allies in the "war on terror." The administration reverted to the traditional conciliatory approach to China as a quasi “strategic partner” and “responsible stakeholder.” That policy, largely continued by the Obama administration, has colored Sino-US relations for the worse ever since – on Taiwan, human rights, trade practices, currency manipulation, and other issues.

As the United States begins the next post-9/11 decade and Beijing brandishes what Henry Kissinger now calls its “triumphalist” assertiveness, Washington will have to rethink that relationship.

The year 2001 began with the inauguration of President George W. Bush who, like all presidents since Nixon, pledged a reset of America’s relations with the Chinese Communist regime.

His immediate predecessor, Bill Clinton, who had criticized the first President Bush for “coddling the butchers of Beijing” after the Tiananmen Square massacre, went through his own turbulent first term with China. In the midst of it, Clinton’s leading Asia diplomat responded to a direct question from the Chinese military on how Washington would react if China attacked Taiwan. His answer – “it would depend on the circumstances” – became the mantra for the doctrine of “strategic ambiguity” through subsequent administrations.

After Bush II took office, however, Beijing presented him with an early test of his own resolve in the face of China’s increasing assertiveness in the region. On April 1, 2001, a Chinese jet fighter pilot aggressively tracked and harassed a lumbering US reconnaissance aircraft, clipping the EP-3’s wing, destroying the Chinese plane and killing the pilot, and forcing the US plane to make an emergency landing on China’s Hainan Island. Beijing extracted an apology from Washington, detained the crew for over a week, and held the plane for months before allowing the US military to retrieve it, dismantled and crated.

Mr. Bush was not pleased with Chinese behavior and, when asked later that month what America would do if China were to attack Taiwan, he responded: “whatever it took” to defend Taiwan. With that statement, Bush seemed to be putting US-China relations in a posture of strategic clarity. Although China experts in and out of the government rushed to assure Beijing that Washington’s policy toward Taiwan had not changed, Bush’s words, together with his approval of a large arms package for Taiwan, had delivered a healthy new deterrent message against Chinese adventurism and miscalculation.

Then came the September 11 attacks on New York and Washington, which some in China cheered as showing an “arrogant” America getting what it deserved. (One of the callers to the Voice of America program on which I appeared during the tenth 9/11 anniversary week proudly proclaimed that he was among that minority celebratory group.)

The Bush administration responded by mobilizing a global coalition in a war on terror and launched invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. While not directly participating in the military operations, China joined rhetorically in the counter-terrorism campaign but focused its efforts almost exclusively on the “separatists” and “splittists” in Tibet and Xinjiang.

The administration managed to convince itself that China was a reliable ally in the anti-terror project, and as the Clinton administration before it had believed, a useful partner in combating the growing danger from North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. In the post-9/11 strategic environment, at least as it was perceived, Bush never repeated his clear commitment to Taiwan’s defense.

Meanwhile, the newly elected administration of Taiwan began chafing at the constraints China continued to impose on its national identity and participation in international activities. Washington openly sided with Beijing in warning Taipei against these rhetorical “provocations.”

China was happy to pocket American concessions and affirmations of its role as a “responsible stakeholder” in the international system and felt no obligation to deliver anything substantial on either terrorism or North Korea, nor to demonstrate its bona fides in any of the other areas previously at issue in the US-China relationship such as trade, currency manipulation, and human rights.

Beijing continued its deployment of ballistic missiles targeting the island of Taiwan, and in 2005, yet another Chinese general threatened nuclear attacks over Taiwan, this time against “hundreds” of American cities.

But it was Taiwan’s demands for greater international space that earned the strongest criticism from Washington. Perhaps encouraged by American annoyance with Taipei, in 2006, China enacted an “Anti-Secession Law” that purported to provide a legal basis for Chinese military action if Taiwan did, or didn’t do, a range of things, from declaring outright formal independence from China to simply taking too long to submit “peacefully” to Chinese Communist rule. Mr. Kissinger, the father of the “one China” policy, warned Taiwan in 2007 that “China will not wait forever” to take Taiwan, by force if necessary.

But even after Taiwan’s 2008 election produced the most pro-China administration in Taiwan’s history, Beijing has maintained its threatening posture toward Taiwan, both rhetorically and in its military and naval preparations.

Most recently, as Taiwan prepares for its next presidential election in 2012, Chinese officials, lacking their own democratic process, have begun to meddle again in Taiwan’s. As they did in earlier elections, they have warned Taiwan’s voters not to make “the wrong choice” by electing anyone not sufficiently receptive to integration with China.

The Obama administration has chosen to continue the latter Bush policy of conciliation with China rather than the more candid, some would say confrontational, approach Bush was beginning to take before September 11 changed Washington’s worldview. As a result, the US and China are once again heading toward a situation where strategic miscalculation by China could lead the countries into direct conflict over Taiwan, or over China’s claims in the South and East China Seas where Southeast Asian countries have described China’s actions as “aggressive.”

The administration has correctly admonished Beijing that freedom of navigation in those waters is a critical US national interest and that territorial and resource disputes must be resolved peacefully. Similar firmness and clarity on Taiwan – as in Bush’s transitory pre-9/11 commitment and by approval of new F-16s for Taiwan – would go far toward assuring stability in the entire region.

This past March, the Senate Intelligence Committee asked James Clapper, Director of National Intelligence, to identify “the greatest mortal threat to America.” Even though Osama bin Laden was still alive at the time, his response was not Al Qaeda, but China. It is time to pick up that untended thread and reassess Washington’s China policies over the last decade to determine what changes need to be made over the next.

Joseph A. Bosco served in the office of the secretary of Defense as China country desk officer and previously taught graduate seminars on China-US relations at Georgetown University’s Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service. He is now a national security consultant.

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